It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best place for ideological fisticuffs is a Facebook status. Forget arts festivals, forget live debates, forget sitting around at the pub until Hitler inevitably comes up – it’s all Facebook. So it was the other fateful day when I decided to wade into a conversation about kink-shaming.
Everyone and their mum has an opinion about Fifty Shades of Grey (I’m sorry, but yes, your mum totally read it). Considering that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Anne Rice, the grandmother of modern sexy vampires, does too. In the wake of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie she posted this:
“I’m an ardent feminist. I believe completely in the right of women to their own sexual fantasies. I believe in their right to write and read sexual fantasies, and I will always defend them (and men) against efforts to politicize or sanitize [sic] or patrol their sexual fantasies.”
As a recovering teenage goth, it’s deeply painful to disagree with Rice about anything, but by the end of the status I was super uncomfortable. And not just because I’d argue Fifty Shades is less ‘edgy fetish text’ more ‘textbook abusive relationship’ (though that’s been covered extensively elsewhere). Instead, let’s talk about how this strange thing happens when we talk about fetish – either it’s shamed for being unhealthy deviance, or kinks are posited as above reproach. Since the first route is very silly, let’s just break down that second response: that as soon as it’s consensual sexing, everything is peaches.
Now I love peaches as much as the next person. As a sex-positive feminist I believe strongly in the right of people to have as much or as little sex as they want. All different kinds, too. Vanilla, kinky, oral, anal, upside-down, sex dressed as a clown, if that’s your thing. I believe BDSM is by and large a very good way to fuck, and, due to the explicit emphasis on consent, negotiation, and debriefing, often actually much better than stereotypical bangin’. There is also obviously a difference between entertaining a fantasy and entertaining a sex guest in real life.
Since fetish is often the intersection between imagination and reality, there is an element of needing to tread carefully (on your lover’s back in those nine-inch heels). While fantasy and fetish are themselves neither good nor bad, pretending they exist in a vacuum is super disingenuous. What turns us on is cultural, as well as personal – a result of our environment in addition to the self. There’s a reason that even vanilla sex is referred to as ‘naughty’ and ‘dirty’ and whatnot. Despite living in a world saturated with sexualised imagery, we’re still pretty repressed in Western society a lot of the time. Because of this, basically, it’s neat to ensure everything is being brought to life in a responsible way. As my girlfriend put it, “Just because I enjoy gratuitous violence in movies doesn’t mean I give Quentin Tarantino a free pass for the racialised violence in Django Unchained.” In other words, just because you have an enthusiastically consenting spanking buddy doesn’t mean we don’t live in a world where violence against women ain’t fetishised. So, while having a spanking buddy is great (like, really great), it’s important to remain aware of the power dynamic at play in order to keep everything above board.
Surprising no-one, the Facebook thread quickly devolved to a clusterfuck of miscommunication. Fifty Shades is a tricky one because a lot of the public debate has focused on BDSM as automatically unhealthy or involved people – like Rice – claiming it gets a free pass; both of these approaches miss the point. It’s not hand-wringing to criticise a text for idealising stalking and rape or pointing out that Ana doesn’t even want to be a submissive. That’s not an attempt to “politicize or sanitize or patrol [women’s] sexual fantasies”. And, in my opinion, it’s certainly not constructive to wave all this off as ‘just fiction’. It’s important to take into account the consequences and context in which narratives like this exist. For Australia, that’s a context where one in five women over the age of 15 will be subjected to sexual violence. And when you blur or take away the consent in BDSM, it’s no longer just some kinky fun: it’s abuse.
More generally, kink is more complicated than a supposed maladjustment, or something somehow magically separate from the rest of our lives. It is possible to be critical of where what gets you off cums from without shaming yourself or others. Without the capacity to do this, we risk dehumanising our partner(s) in play, and that’s no fun at all.